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Sayan Soul Chapter 1 Part 5 (Adult Content and Language)

Part 5

Calliope jumped at any chance to take in tips from the card table, since she wasn’t fit for the parlor after contracting a lover’s disease—the kind that didn’t clear up with the herbs and ointments Raisa gave her. She cut the cards and shuffled, perhaps the only one happy to be there.

Daveed cut his losses, and Rhynda signaled she was ready to cash out. Whether they had their fill of losing, or just couldn’t take the insult of a newcomer being invited to the table, Raisa didn’t care.

Strange was hard to read, sweaty and flushed in the warm room, and overdressed on top of it. He rose from his seat, saying, “Time to make a quick getaway while I still have some jingle in my purse and some spring in my step.” He reached out to Martin, “A pleasure to meet you, young man. If you ever need an independent banker, I trust you’ll look me up. On River Street, between the bookies’ and Fox’s brewery.”

“Fair enough,” Martin said, shaking Strange’s hand.

“You got me tonight,” Strange said to Raisa, “but I’ll even the score next time.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said. “I’ll be begging for bread with the other down-and-outs.”

Bidding the rest of the table a good night, Strange left the gallery.

Rhynda gathered her purse. “I ought to get my beauty sleep, I suppose.”

Shadow pulled her into him. He placed a hand on Rhynda’s waist to whisper in her ear, but as soon as his face came close, he bit down with his whole mouth, sucking on her neck. “You could stay a while.” He squeezed her breast through her bodice while she tried to hide a grimace.

Raisa knew how Rhynda felt, with his rough hands molesting her right in front of their peers. Rhynda was trained, though. Tempered. She moaned in delight, pretending she couldn’t contain her excitement. “You got a game to play, handsome,” she said, extricating her body from his grasp. “I don’t want to distract you now, darling. But maybe later.”

Shadow grabbed his drink and waved Rhynda away. She didn’t have to be told twice. Abandoning her usual elegant sashay, she scurried down the steps without even acknowledging Raisa’s wave.

Thorne remained, rounding it out to five players at the table. Two dons and their two best agents. And Martin, the smiling idiot.

Raisa picked up a weak hand and folded, scanning the players for tells. Thorne, in his stupid mask, raised the bet. Lion folded in favor of lighting a new cigar. Martin noticed Raisa watching him and stared back an uncomfortably long moment.

It seemed he was looking right through her. A crazy thought. It unnerved her enough to avert her gaze as he sent his cards back to Calliope. Maybe she read too much into his blank expression. Perhaps liquor was making his lids heavy. To win, she needed to keep cool, avoid aggressive players who couldn’t wait to strike. Players like Lion. And Shadow, who took the pot.

Attitudes degraded quickly and strategies changed with each hand they played, or at least it seemed to Raisa, who was short on coins. When she found herself holding a pair of kings, her strategy deviated from its former course. A bet from Thorne and a raise from Martin caused her heart a squeeze of excitement. She raised and Thorne called while Martin sacrificed his money in the pot, saying, “Not this time.” Shadow was in, too, and they saw the flop—all swords.

Raisa took a deep breath and closed her eyes, readying her secret gift.

Thorne parted with half his remaining coins and Shadow called. Both represented a flush, but she couldn’t tell which actually made it until her eyes adjusted fully. She had an over-pair and the odds started running through her mind. Her vision blurred. Her skin felt numb and cold.

A green glow appeared around Shadow, and disappeared. She tried again, closing her eyes, pretending the smoke drifting around their table was irritating. When she glanced past Thorne, a faint pink outline surrounded him, just a hint of a halo standing an inch away from his dark clothing.

Raisa had seen a range of colors that surely communicated some meaning she couldn’t decipher. But that wasn’t what she was looking for. Past experience taught her that a person’s aura flickered like a candle near a window when they were deceitful, and sure enough, Thorne’s had flickered twice in the last breath he sucked between sneering lips.

And something else, a separate glow upon his left hand. Sparkles, like moonlight reflecting on waves. Ever changing with movement. Something she’d never seen before. Something intriguingly new.

Instinct took over and she raised, immediately experiencing that sinking feeling that followed any decision to bet big. “Twenty Lorraines.”

“F*** me sideways,” Lion said with a laugh. “Girl’s got teeth like the ones hanging ‘round your neck, eh, Martin?” Martin’s eyebrow twitched as if in response, but he said nothing.

“I can’t cover it,” Thorne said, low. “What’ll you take to call?”

She eyed the ring on his hand, a sapphire set in silver. A plain thing under the influence of her normal vision. The glow faded, and the sparkles with it. “Your jewel would be fine.”

“The sapphire for twenty?” He turned the gem back and forth on his finger. “I can’t.”

“Then you fold?” Raisa asked, pointedly.

Thorne shot a venomous glare to Shadow, who shrugged beside Raisa. “Something else,” Thorne said. “Name it. The sapphire ain’t worth twenty, anyways.”

“I’ll accept the ring, or I’ll take the pot,” Raisa said. “Your choice.”

Thorne finished his whiskey and wiped his chin with an angry swipe. He pried the ring from his finger, tossing it on the felt. Shadow sniffed and tossed his cards back to Calliope.

They revealed hands. He had a queen and an eight, paired with the queen of swords on the table, and each hand had a draw for the flush.

“Kings against queens,” Calliope said. No card could save him, except another queen. If they both made the flush, hers was higher. He stood, hovering just close enough to the table to see his hopes dashed as the turn card came a knave, followed by the four of swords, making a flush for both hands. He was finished, receiving no consolation prize other than as much drink as he could fill himself with before Lion kicked his guests out for the night. Raisa scooped up her winnings and took her new ring.

When Thorne descended the stairs, Shadow and Lion exchanged telling glances, but Raisa could only guess at their meaning. They got up from the table to have quiet words.

Calliope dealt, and Raisa faced Martin alone on the quiet gallery, and in that moment, she made the choice to play rather than eavesdrop on Lion. “Your first game with the dons,” she said. “It’s funny they’ve all vacated. Usually fresh blood in the water lures them closer.”

“Who says I’m fresh blood?” he replied.

Her palm covered the empress and king of hearts. Top connectors and suited, one of her favorite hands. “Around here, everyone is. Don’t take it personally.”

Martin raised. The flop came, eight, seven, empress. With top pair, it looked like a fine time to make a move. She pushed in half her stack, enough to buy a fine carthorse or a stunning gown and crystal tiara for Longnight. “We’re like our own little village. Family, of a sort. The card game is like our own version of a weekend brunch.”

Martin’s eyes bored into Raisa, looking through her again. They were green, an uncommon color in the south. Raisa only noticed because her eyes were green and she received endless compliments, as if she’d chosen the color herself. Her eyes were the only authentic part of her appearance, unlike her body all propped up, padded, or squeezed into shape with help from an expensive tailor. And she wasn’t alone.

The linen Martin wore might have been rough and mixed with wool for his outer clothes, but his white shirt was fine, the stitching and painstaking smocking showing just under the collar of his open doublet. He certainly wasn’t a poor musician. Like a lace panty, his costume was a gimmick, but rather than mask the truth, it revealed it. His charade was almost impressive, but not good enough to evade Raisa’s inspection.

“I’m more of a weekend brunch sort of fellow, I reckon. But don’t let that stop you from putting up a fight. It ain’t fun if it ain’t a challenge.”

The bard’s confidence prickled her skin and made her want to slap the smugness right off his stupid face. He was getting to her, and she couldn’t concentrate. She folded her top pair.

“Heads-up gambling’s like a sword duel,” Raisa said, lightly. “It might appear an even testing of skill, but more often than not, a small mistake leads to a brutal slaughter.”

Martin shrugged. “I can’t say I know the first thing about sword-fighting, but I’m a dab hand at cards, or so my old nan used to say, when she taught me.”

A trickle of sweat ran down the front of Raisa’s dress, alerting her that she’d been debating too long over her new hand, a pair of sixes. Old nan, indeed. He was trying to goad her into playing. Even if she called, it was a weak move. The only real play so late in the game, and with mediocre cards, was a push all-in.

She leaned away from the table, where the air felt clearer. If not for a debt to pay, she might have beat a hasty retreat upstairs to her chamber, where she could strip down and clean the film of sweat and smoke from her skin.

She checked the hand.

It was a pair—a really playable pair.

Martin raised all-in again, and while she expected no less, she had a bad feeling.

But a ****ing pair! How could she fold them?

She sent the cards skidding back to Calliope and let out a heavy breath.

Martin flicked his cards when he returned them, exposing a red three and black four that turned the knife in Raisa’s gut.

“That’s bad form, sir,” Calliope said.

“An accident,” Martin said, very convincingly. “My apologies.”

“You’ll have to try harder than that to coax me into betting with emotion,” Raisa said. “I have something of a reputation for being a steady player.”

“I’ve heard that,” he said. “By the bar, at the dicing tables, even in the privy.”

Raisa didn’t doubt it. In their home, Lion and Raisa were often popular subjects for rumormongering. “All good things, I hope.” She put on a fake smile.

“Seems you’ve got a reputation for winning,” he said with a crooked grin. “I mean, if three men pissing in the same trough don’t have anything better to talk about, I should probably feel honored to be your opponent.”

Why didn’t she throw him out before dragging Cherie upstairs?

Lion roared laughing as he returned to the table to collect his coins.

Martin winked at Raisa. “Some folks think you can read minds,” he said, cocking his head. “I used to think the same about Nan.”

Raisa ignored Lion and picked up her new cards. “And did Nan tell you the cards are only half the game?” She kept her mouth a tight line, though she was holding a pair of queens.

Martin studied his cards before placing them back on the felt. He placed an index finger on each card and switched them back and forth a few times. “Even if you do have magic in your corner, you just lost half your stack.”

His mention of magic disarmed her, but Raisa recovered quickly. “You don’t know anything about me,” she spat. “Are we playing a game of cards, or chit-chatting about Nan and taking a catalog of the stupid things men say in the toilet when their trousers are down?”

“Both, I reckon, and I think I’m winning. Go ahead, read my mind.” He sat back in his chair. “Or perhaps I’ll read yours.”

His fingers never left his cards. The nails were clean and cropped close, but rough on the edges, unlike Lion’s, which benefitted from the manicures he received in the parlor once a week. “You’ve got a third of the coins I have, and you know I’ll call you every time. You haven’t bluffed once since I joined this table, and as short stack, you aren’t starting now. Every time you look at your cards, you worry about…a debt you owe, and whether you can pay it.” His narrow eyes matched his smug grin. “Am I close?”

Raisa prayed to gods whose names she recalled, and those nameless, forgotten deities her ancestors worshipped. Those of the forest and field, and those of sex and booze. Let any listening ear hear her unspoken plea for a spectacular flop, because without it, her game was over.

Martin interrupted her prayer. “Oh, and you hate me.” He winked. “All-in.”

Raisa was tallying the value of her jewelry, taking it out one piece at a time, when Martin extended his finger to Thorne’s sapphire ring on the felt, saying, “I’ll accept that, but not the other pieces.” And Raisa’s aura sight returned just as she glanced up, as if to say oh no you don’t.

The glow around the bard couldn’t be described as faint. It was blazingly bright and crept away from his body several inches. As if he were standing in front of a bright lantern, a warm yellowish glow emanated from him, and Raisa was caught staring, amazed by its beauty and frightened by its immensity all at once. “I can’t, but my other jewels would cover…”

“Don’t tell me it has sentimental value,” he said. “You won it ten minutes ago.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” she snapped back. And in that moment, Raisa knew she was beat. Martin correctly guessed a price too steep for her to pay, and bullied her out of the game with his greater pile of coins. She threw her cards down, careful to keep the queens hidden, lest her shame be increased.

Martin stuck his hand out. “Good game, Miss Raven. I look forward to next time.”

With her dignity in shreds, she turned her back on Martin’s hand. Lion’s jolly laughter trailed after her as she made her way to the makeshift bar. When she got there, she grabbed a bottle of something clear and held up her hand to the barman’s protests.

“He won’t miss just one. Do your job and get off my back.” Bitterness washed down her throat at the first swig. With tongue burned by the booze, her words came out tamer. “Excuse me.”

Raisa took her bottle of sorrow back up the stairs, to the opposite hallway of the gallery, where she could seethe without making a public spectacle.

She owed the servants for stoking the hearths. She owed for the wood. Eighty-five had to go to Strange. That left…nothing. She’d have to take a trip to the pawnshop in the morning and make excuses in the afternoon.

Lovely.

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Caged Maiden
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